RIVER CLUB — Aliana Diaz knows exactly what bullied victims go through. When the “I Hate Ali” Youtube video and the frizzy hair jokes became too much, she almost reached her breaking point.
Her stubborn, shy silence, and the anger it caused, pushed the then 13-year-old to rush for the kitchen, grab a knife and hold it to her stomach, before her mother intervened.
River Club’s Christina Meiser, 16, also has dealt with bullying firsthand, and has even stopped bullies from taunting victims.
“I don’t have a problem getting in a bully’s face,” Meiser said. “If they have a problem with a friend, they have a problem with me. They (the bullies) shut up after I talk to them.”
Last month Diaz, a 17-year-old at Sarasota Christian School, and Meiser, a student at Sarasota Military Academy, created a Facebook page called “You’re Not Alone,” on which bully victims can tell stories, get advice and find inspiration through like-minded peers.
On it, the friends post uplifting quotes, such as one from Harvey S. Firestone, the founder of Firestone Tires, who warns, “Never be bullied into silence.”
Diaz and Meiser also reference national stories meant to broaden the group’s appeal.
The impetus for the 45-member group came when the teens read about the story of Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old Canadian whose suicide was attributed to cyber-bullying through Facebook. But Diaz and Meiser point to a bigger problem that circulates in schools — and, increasingly, across the Internet — everywhere, even in Manatee County.
“The bullying problem is in schools all around us,” Meiser said. “Kids are more likely to hold it in and not tell anyone. They try to handle it themselves. Schools need to try harder to make it OK for kids to talk to them.”
Local schools have been working to address the issue.
In 2005, for example, the Manatee County School District Office of Safe Schools installed “Not in My School,” a comprehensive bully-prevention framework to make it easier for students to report bullying.
The district defines bullying as the mistreatment of an individual or group due to a perceived advantage in power and a willful intent to cause harm. These acts can be socially, emotionally or physically damaging in nature and include teasing, rumor spreading, intimidation, pushing or shoving and more.
Skip Wilhoit, coordinator of Safe Schools, said the district got ahead of the bullying problem by creating a method to grasp the complexity of it and surveying students about the issue.
At the end of the 2004-05 school year, the district formed a middle school committee to study bullying and to help provide its schools with a common set of strategies to address it. By the beginning of the 2005-06 year, an elementary committee was also formed to look at the specific dynamics of bullying in the kindergarten through fifth-grade setting.
By 2006, the district began to encourage all schools — from elementary to high school — to participate in bullying surveys.
The numbers tell part of the story.
In a 2008-09 district-wide survey, 29.4% of 2,903 middle school student respondents said they had been bullied at school before. Of those bullied, 22.2% said they did nothing about it. More than 26% of students admitted to bullying another student.
All of those figures dropped slightly in a 2010-11 survey, the last year of available district-wide data.
But in the three years, the number of middle-schoolers who reported being bullied online doubled from 4.9% to 10.3%.
High school survey results are slightly more alarming.
In 2010-11, the number of Manatee County highschoolers who said they’d been bullied at school (21.6%) reported a bullying incident to no one (40.7%); of those students surveyed, 24.6% had bullied another student. All three instances had increased from the year before.
Additionally, 25.9% claimed to be the victim of online bullying, up more than 4% from 2009-10.
Wilhoit keeps data for elementary schools, as well. Of 5,366 respondents from Manatee County elementary schools, 43.9% of students surveyed said they’d been bullied in 2010-11. Of the students bullied, 11.3% failed to report it.
“The data we get is really consistent and we know we’re getting truthful data because the surveys are anonymous,” Wilhoit said. “There’s really no significant trend up or down, and that closely follows national data.”
As much as Wilhoit believes in numbers and considers the survey results favorable compared to other districts, he admits the data fails in assessing the scale of bullying.
Wilhoit says about 10% of bullying situations are brought to the attention of adults.
“There’s a disconnect with reporting bullying,” Wilhoit said. “It’s a largely clandestine behavior. Kids don’t think adults can help. They don’t want to be branded as a snitch.”
The district teaches Manatee County school staff to make sure nothing goes unseen.
Teachers roam the halls in between classes and monitor basketball games at recess. Students who misbehave — behavior not limited to bullying — are sent to the office, where school psychologist Ginny Marmo steps in.
Marmo, who represents five schools in the district, stages small-group interventions with bully victims and bullies.
She also scans the data each week to see which students have racked up three to five office discipline referrals and groups together the citations related to bullying.
Marmo will take those children — and others referred by teachers, administration members and even other students — and run social-skills groups intended to boost the action of the bystander, the figure in a bullying situation with the power to stop it, but who are often too scared to take action.
Before the session, students’ parents must fill out a consent form that allows Marmo to take kids out of non-core classes.
“I’ll tell one of the students outside the classroom, ‘I’m going to pick on you. I don’t really mean it,’” Marmo said. “I start talking junk to them. The other kids usually just sit shocked around the table. I then stop and ask, ‘What were you guys thinking about?’ They say, ‘We couldn’t believe you were doing that.’ I say, ‘Well why didn’t you stop me?’”
Marmo believes that Diaz’s and Meiser’s Facebook group can make a difference, citing the success of her intervention groups.
“It sounds like a great idea what they’re doing,” said Marmo, who helped get the Jeffrey Johnston Stand-Up for All Students Act passed after a friend’s child committed suicide because of cyber-bullying. “We know that talking with like-minded people who support you helps.”
Diaz and Meiser said they started their Facebook page because they’re tired of keeping quiet.
“I’m a typical shy girl who doesn’t want problems,” Diaz said. “I mean, people would make fun of my hair. It’s just hair. It made me upset, sad and angry. I can’t stand bullying now. It should be stopped. We started this page so people know they’re not alone.”
The girls, who have felt helpless themselves at the hand of bullies before, now say they understand how important it is to confront bullying head-on and also to encourage victims of it.
“We can’t sit by and let things happen,” Meiser said. “Every person in life has been in a place where they feel like they can’t talk to anyone. If our page can stop one person from doing something terrible that is enough.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].